'Game of Thrones' Season 6 Premiere: TV Review

Game of Thrones - Faye Marsay, Maisie Williams - H 2016
Macall B. Polay/HBO
A strong return, complete with brutal violence and shocking nudity.

Even without George R.R. Martin's books, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss deliver a strong table-setting premiere to season six of the HBO hit.

In retrospect, the fifth season of Game of Thrones was neither as so-so and disappointing as I often felt it was when episodes were in progress, nor as spectacular as the show's semi-random across-the-board Emmy coronation indicated. The lengthy "Previously on ..." reel preceding Sunday's sixth-season premiere was a reminder of the mixture of great stuff (anything involving Cersei, Tyrion, Arya, Brienne and the rise of the White Walkers) and inconsistent (most things involving Meereen, Dorne and an over-reliance on underexplored rape themes) we received in 2015.

With Thrones finally moving ahead of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series on a number of plotlines — or perhaps just moving parallel and independent; we really don't know — HBO and series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss thought this the right time to pull screeners from critics, even though we somehow manage to review lots of shows, some based on established materials and some original, without spoiling plotlines on an almost daily basis. HBO also embargoed reviews from critics who attended the show's premiere earlier this month and watched the first episode projected in impressive form on a big screen.

For those who haven't seen the premiere, my entirely spoiler-free review would have read something like: "HBO's Game of Thrones is back on solid footing with an episode that features a couple of true shockers, the usual superlative performances from several key castmembers, some potentially fruitful new character pairings and some stunning locations, sets and CG backdrops that benefit from being seen on the largest TV possible. It's also a slightly diffuse episode that feels more responsibility to get as many players onto the field than to hold together as a flawless hour, but that's completely acceptable for a premiere."

See? Spoiler-free.

If, however, you don't care about some [not all] limited spoilers and/or you've actually seen the episode, since this review won't post until after the first airing of "The Red Woman," read on ...

Last warning ...

Although Thrones has had some of its most successful episodes — take "The Rains of Castamere" or "Blackwater" or "The Watchers on the Wall" or "Hardhome" — when it concentrated either entirely or to a large degree on a single plotline, that's not the way its premieres are designed to operate. With dozens of regular castmembers and the potential for a dozen locations, it's simply hard to remember where and in what condition we left people. And with Jon Snow's potential demise dominating nearly a year of speculation, casual viewers could be forgiven for barely remembering that Stannis and Myrcella also had a rough time of it in the finale, as did Myranda — and that's before you get to Arya's new blindness, Daenerys' remote geographical location, the giant new addition to the Kingsguard, Jorah's encroaching greyscale, Samwell's and Gilly's journey, the incarceration of Loras and Margaery and the placement of a slew of other characters, including folks who vanished for the entirety of the fifth season (like Hodor and Bran).

So when I say that "The Red Woman" is a table-setting episode, that's not an expression of disappointment, but rather an acknowledgement of necessity. Even with an hour to work with, and returning to only a couple of locations more than once, several of the characters I mentioned are absent in the premiere.

Table-setting episodes often lack cumulative weight, and I think that's probably the case with "The Red Woman." There isn't room for a single character to have an in-episode journey, but instead we get many characters giving their initial responses to how things changed for them after the events of last season's finale. And since some of those changes are huge, that's important.

Credit to the show for not messing about when it comes to the events at The Wall and the condition of Jon Snow after last season's mutiny. We open up North, home of several of the most interesting reactions to the finale, since that's where we find Davos and Melisandre (Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten, both seemingly headed for more screen time this season). An answer on Jon Snow's well-being comes quickly, but needn't necessarily be permanent, because what things are? It's odd to be at The Wall dealing with this piddly power struggle when we know that an army of the undead is massing and we're not paying nearly enough attention to that. But some of the premiere's little vignettes are about in-the-moment struggles and some are about establishing this season's storylines and whatever's happening with the zombies-who-aren't-zombies will just have to wait.

In the former category, we get Lena Headey, underlining and reaffirming that Emmy nomination she received last year, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, showing why he may be the cast's most underrated performer, since Cersei and Jamie have had a rough time of it lately, not that we're in a rush to pity the Lannisters. In the latter category, I'm excited to see how Sophie Turner continues with a character arc that has become one of the show's most dynamic and how Sansa might push Alfie Allen's Theon to shake off the mopey, dismembered coil of Reek. Sometimes a glimpse is just enough, as with Natalie Dormer's Margaery's prison mindset or the odd couple team of Jorah and Daario, but one scene of blind Arya or partially-in-charge Tyrion is far from enough — a reflection more on how vital Maisie Williams and Peter Dinklage are than the quality of their brief early scenes.

More than just a series of "You Are Here" icons on the vast map of Westeros, "The Red Woman" includes some violence, more shocking in its gore than its narrative relevance, and this being Game of Thrones, some nudity, more shocking in its narrative ramifications than its gratuity or titillation. Directed by Jeremy Podeswa, Emmy-nominated for "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," the premiere has one or two rousing set pieces that produced cheers from the gala screening crowd and even in scenes that didn't necessarily land for me, like Dany's slow-unfolding and already somewhat repetitive new situation, the visual scope and settings shine.

Ultimately, even if not every element satisfied, the sixth-season premiere of Game of Thrones did what it needed to for me, putting this mammoth locomotive back on the track and showing again that even with less and less of Martin's published material to rely on, Weiss and Benioff know how to move it forward.

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Alfie Allen
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Airs: Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)